Homestay Testimonials: Vinni Cheng

Vinni Cheng
Fall 2009

Best excursion with host family

I was lucky enough to experience my little host sister's 7th birthday which is a special celebratory age called shichi-go-san (7-5-3), which celebrates children turning 7, 5 or 3 years old that year. During that day, the child would be dressed elaborately and the whole family would go out to scenic areas to take pictures, and a celebratory meal would be eaten. Since my host mother is a collector of kimonos, I had the opportunity to try wearing one of her fancier ones which was a gorgeous crimson red kimono decorated with flowers and birds with a black and gold obi.

We strolled around a scenic park and my host father took many pictures. Afterwards, we headed to a restaurant and ate a meal with countless courses and we all passed out in the warm private dining room waiting for dessert. The celebration was quite short since it was only half a day long and I was quite thankful that I was able to take off the 20-pound kimono when I got back, but I would not have passed out the chance to wear that kimono for anything. I spent the rest of the day relaxing at home and played games with my host sisters.

Favorite meal with my host family

All my meals with my host family were delicious but due to my schedule and long commute times from TUJ, I ended up eating most of my meals alone while my host dad was still at work and the children were studying in the living room. Weekends were special though. I was able to share meals with my whole host family and one of the ones I particularly remember is my welcoming dinner, which was okonomiyaki.

We all gathered around the table and made a giant pancake full of batter, cabbage, grilled meat, noodles and raw eggs. My little host sister got the honors of the welcoming speech and I was given the job of flipping the huge pancake. It turned out to be impossible so I ended up chopping it in half and flipping both pieces. We celebrated by stuffing ourselves with food and cake and breaking the ice. I felt really welcomed and we all got a lot more comfortable with each other after that dinner which is why it was probably one of the best meals I had there.

Homestay experience

Being able to participate in this homestay was one of the most rewarding experiences I have ever had. Besides being immersed directly into the Japanese culture, I was able to rapidly learn a good amount of Japanese and understand what it is like to be a member of a family living in Japan.

It was not surprising that at first, everything would be awkward; especially the greetings and the initial train ride to the host family's house. I knew that it would take time to be comfortable around them and for all the formalities to fade away; meeting the host dad who comes home at midnight every night due to work, bowing many times and stuttering with Japanese that I thought I knew when I repeated it over and over again in my mind, not really sure of what would be offensive and what was proper. My host mother's English was also quite limited and the children were shy to speak English. We ended up using a lot of hand gestures, laughs at our failure to communicate and, in the end, we gained the urge to try harder. Luckily, the kids were quite direct and loved to talk to me even though I could barely understand them at first. With a bit of patience, I started to play games with them and soon enough developed a base of useful words and phrases for my daily life in Tokyo. I ended up tutoring my host kids in math during their daily study periods after dinner and they would read to me in Japanese. Since my host mother was quite busy as a house wife and being an active member of the PTA, I tried to help her around the house as much as possible and soon we were comfortable enough so that it felt natural to clear the dishes or to vacuum when I was free. I felt like I was part of the family, being able to freely express my opinions, my likes and dislikes and getting input on what dinner should be.

Even though things were working out well, spending time with my host family was still a challenge. Commuting from school took about 1.5-2 hours each way daily, and my classes required a lot of weekend field trips to the city so the only time I had left to spend with them was at night or occasionally on my free days on weekends. My host mother, who was extremely busy all the time, would go to sleep around 9 o' clock, as would the kids, and I would be busy with school work until late in the evenings. That left around 3 hours a day, 2 if I included eating dinner by myself even though they were sitting near me during their study time. It was quite frustrating that I wasn't able to do my part and make time to see them but they understood and I knew that our schedules were hard to match up. I made it a task for myself to sit with the children daily after dinner at their study time to spend time with them teaching them math and trying my best to give explanations in Japanese of how to solve the problems. I ended up putting my host family first, school work second and going out last on my list of priorities. Everything paid off as we got closer together and scheduled weekend outings. They showed me the customs of tea ceremonies, brought me to several festivals and I got to participate in my host sister's big day and a variety of other events. Time flew by and when it was time for me to leave, the family took me to the train station, gave me many sentimental gifts and my little host sister even tried to follow me through the turnstile at the station. The bonds we created together during this short time was strong enough to make me tear up inside and it took me quite a lot to hold it back. I will never forget my stay here. Being in this homestay allowed me to experience all the cultural events on my list of tasks I wanted to accomplish in Japan.

All the challenges I went through during this term made me grow as a person. I became more sensitive to the culture here and more self conscious of the way I act and treat others. My Japanese improved greatly from trying to communicate with my host family and I have become more confident in speaking to random people in Japanese. I learned to set my priorities to what was important to me and not let my grades and studies take over my life. Making difficult decisions became a daily task such as when I had to decide whether my schoolwork or forming a good relationship with family was more important. In the end, I have stayed the independent person I have always been but I also learned to be able to trust a bit more freely than I used to and ask for help when I needed it. I realized my host family was always willing to help me out as long as I took the first step by forgetting my lack of confidence in my Japanese abilities and tried my best to just start talking to them.

By the way, as a side note, I have taken about 2 years of Japanese in my home school at Drexel University and I was quite surprised I knew more than I thought I did. Although it took me a bit of time to get used to hearing my host family talk and I was not able to respond to a lot of their questions, I quickly became comfortable listening and speaking in Japanese as I used it more. When I was wrong, I was not corrected and sometimes I would have to repeat myself in several different ways to get my message across, but my host mom would always repeat it back in the correct way as a question which helped me learn. I am confident in saying that after taking one of TUJ's Japanese courses that the classes here help the students build way more vocabulary more quickly than I had learned during my 2 years of prior study. The most important aspect of being successful in a homestay is taking the initiative to talk and understand each other.